Museum Data Exchange: Tools for Sharing

As all good things in life, this took a little longer to see the light of day than I had thought it would, which means I am doubly delighted to announce: we have now officially released the suite of tools generated through the Mellon-funded Museum Data Exchange project. You’ll find a lot of informative detail in this announcement. Here’s what it all boils down to: Museums now have access to COBOAT and OAICatMuseum 1.0 software.

  • COBOAT is a metadata publishing tool developed by Cognitive Applications Inc. (Cogapp) that transfers information between databases (such as collections management systems) and different formats. As configured for this project, COBOAT allows museums to extract standards-based records in the Categories for the Descriptions of Works of Art (CDWA) Lite XML data format out of Gallery Systems TMS, a leading collection management system. Configuration files allow COBOAT to be adjusted for extraction from different vendor-based or homegrown database systems, or locally divergent implementations of the same collections management system. COBOAT software is now available on the OCLC Web site under a fee-free license for the purposes of publishing a CDWA Lite repository of collections information at

  • OAICatMuseum 1.0 is an Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) data content provider supporting CDWA Lite XML. It allows museums to share the data extracted with COBOAT using OAI-PMH. OAICatMuseum was developed by OCLC Research and is available under an open source license online at

  • When we first started the process with the participating museums to spec out an application for extracting data from their collections management systems, we quickly realized that the complexity of adjusting to different implementations of the same collections management systems required a much more sophisticated solution than we had anticipated while writing the grant. When we approached a number of open source developers in the museum community with the requirements and budget for this project, the overall response was rather tepid – only one party wanted to discuss details. Reality also caught up with us on the end of the participating museums. While all of them liked the idea of open source code, for many there were IT support difficulties foreseen with the introduction of an unfamiliar open source application.

    Ben Rubinstein at Cogapp presented us with an intriguing solution to our conundrum. As a by-product of many museum contracts which required accessing and processing data from collections management systems, Cogapp had developed a system they call COBOAT, or Collections Online Back Office Administration Tool (if you really need to know what the acronym stands for). We wound up hiring Cogapp to extend COBOAT to enable the extraction of CDWA Lite, and make COBOAT available under a fee-free license for publishing CDWA Lite records. Extending a pre-existing tool allowed us to get good value for our dollars, and deliver on the functionality museum partners wanted.

    As for OAICatMuseum 1.0, we’ve already had a beta version of the OAI-PMH data content provider available for a while. As part of the Mellon project, we found that pulling data from a directory structure was much less scalable than pointing it at a small SQL database storing CDWA Lite records, and that was one of the changes we implemented. While COBOAT and OAICatMuseum can certainly be used separately, they do make a nice pairing: COBOAT creates the SQL database with the XML records, which OAICatMuseum then offers up in both CDWA Lite as well as the mandated DC. Full disclosure: OAICatMuseum is based on OAICat, written by Jeff Young, and was further modified for this project by Bruce Washburn, who has been my right-hand-man on all of the activities pertaining to software development.

    We’ll reflect more on our experience in a publication we’ll write up when the grant winds up in October 2009. As you know from a previous post, we’re already knee-deep into the next phase of the grant, which consists of analysis data from the museums we’ve harvested utilizing these tools.

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